The Shenandoah River and its branches meander nearly 300 miles from Port Republic down river to Harpers Ferry where it joins the Potomac River. It was the Shenandoah Valley’s first commercial superhighway. Ninety foot long flat boats called “gundalows” carried iron from the many furnaces in the valley, flour from the mills on its banks, and everything else that the valley produced. These days the river is still used as a means of transportation but the gundalows have been replaced by canoes, rafts, tubes, kayaks, and anything else that floats. As you travel downstream throughout the picturesque rapids and falls you will notice the remains or sites of old mills along with other man made structures.
Indian Fish Dams
These Indian fish dams were designed to hold fish that had been driven down river to be either speared or caught in wicker baskets. They are long narrow piles of rocks that are V-shaped and closed at the downstream end. Some of these dams extend across the whole river while others are along one bank of the Shenandoah. Some of these dams were opened up for gandalow traffic. If this was the case, most have been closed by local residents or by floods moving rocks back into the opening.
Gundalow Wing Dams
Gundalow wing dams were designed to funnel the river into a single, deep channel called a sluice. They were long piles of rocks which were placed at an angle to the banks on both sides of the river. They resemble a wing, hence the name and were open on the downriver end. They were constructed whenever the river was low or where there was a shallow spot in the river. Floods have destroyed most of these structures and are hard to recognize now.
Cuts Through Ledges
The river has plenty of natural solid rock ledges that extend across the river. Some of the bigger ledges had a wide slot either cut or blasted out of them to provide a channel for gundalow traffic. As these are permanent structures many are still evident today. Floods have rolled rocks into some of the cuts and could be cleared away for safer canoeing.
Mill Dams and Chutes
These dams were crib dams which were logs spiked together, filled with loose stones, and made water tight. Each of these dams were required to have an opening or a long wooden chute for a gundalow to glide through. The only remains of these are a pile of loose rocks along the shore and piles of rocks across the river. At low water, you may be able to see a few timbers at right angles to each other in the river bottom.
Keep your fork